run a marathon. change your life. (Custom)

Fifteen years or so ago, a poster on the wall changed the course of my life.

At the time, I was training to be a public school educator and I spent much of my free time weight training, swimming and in fitness classes at the gym.  I was moving forward and enjoying life but directionally, I was lost.  Like many young adults, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with my life.  My future was blurry, at best.

But when I saw that poster, I knew.  More than ever, I was certain of what path to take next.

I still remember that moment so vividly.  It was in a gym hallway that I strolled several times a week on my way to 6:00 am spinning class.  Most days, while pressed for time, I was rushing to get in and get out.  But this day I stopped, took a sip from my water bottle and read the poster on the wall.

“Run a marathon,” it read.  “Change your life.”  It was simple.

And it was those simple words on the wall that in fact changed the course of my life.

At the time, I was no more than an occasional treadmill runner.  Although to myself or anyone else, I didn’t call myself a runner.  I knew nothing about running.  I didn’t have any running gear or proper running shoes.  I didn’t know any runners.  And I didn’t even aspire to be a runner.  If you’d asked me, I wouldn’t have even said that I liked running.  It was just something I did as part of my regime to stay fit.

But as a “non-runner” there was something about that poster that appealed to me.  There was certainly a good amount of challenge, adventure, discovery, and learning—all of which continue to fuel my existence. But deep down it was the change that I was after.

And change is what I got.

Not really knowing what I was getting into, I signed up that evening and started the following week.  It was mid-July in Houston, one of the hottest months of the year.  The average temperature at the time was 94° Fahrenheit (35° Celsius), with the humidity reaching 90% or higher.  Somedays, the temperature and humidity even hit the 100s.

Not only did I know nothing about running, I also knew nothing about training outdoors in that kind of weather.  Sure, I’d been active outdoors in the Houston heat (usually by a pool) but never like this.

That part of it didn’t even cross my mind until the first day when I learned why our training would start and finish by 7:00 am every Saturday morning. It was quite a change from the comfy air-conditioned gym that I was used to but I happily accepted the challenge.

On the first day, we ran 5K to determine our pace groups.  I was one of the last ones to finish.

Having only run on a treadmill, I had no idea how to pace myself on the road.  So I set out to run with the middle of the bunch.  I was 23 and it appeared that I was easily 10 years younger than everyone else there.  I remember thinking, I’m young, fit and I certainly don’t belong in the back.

Then, after only 5 or 10 minutes, it suddenly felt as if my engine had died.  I had to stop and found myself hunched over gasping for air.  My heart was pounding and it was painful to breathe.  I feared I was having a heart attack.

I remember feeling disappointed as well as shocked and confused.  I thought I was fit enough for this.  I’d been easily running 5 kilometers in 30 minutes on a treadmill for months now but this day I couldn’t even run two.

I ended up doing a combination of slow walk-jogging (mostly walking) the rest of the way.  Around 45 minutes from when I started, I finally finished.  Feeling a bit embarrassed, I shuffled (ahem, walked) across the finish line with the last runners of the bunch.  Another runner immediately congratulated me with a friendly smile and assigned me to the red group, the back of the pack.

It was not my proudest start and I immediately questioned what I’d sign up for.  Feelings of self-doubt crept in and I thought, perhaps I’m just not cut out for this running thing.  It was also tough for me to accept that I’d been placed in the back of the pack.  There were 60-somethings in faster pace groups than me.

I finished that “run” feeling both frightened and humbled.  I was terrified for what lay ahead.  I could barely make it 5 kilometers and I had only 6 months to figure out how to manage 42.

And after a quick pep-talk from our coach, I realized that I had so much to learn.  I wasn’t yet at peace with my place in the back of the pack but I felt a growing desire to prove myself in the weeks to come.  It was only the beginning.

That first day was a tough one—a day that I’ll never forget.  But the next few weeks were even tougher.

Week after week, it was a new struggle.  And week by week, thanks to that poster and thanks to running my life was changing for the better.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts where I’ll continue my story of how that poster on the wall changed my life, sharing with you my journey, my struggles, and how running became a true love and an integral part of my life.

Lessons learned

If you’re curious what lessons I learned that first day (there were many), here are a few:

  • Treadmill running and outdoor running are not the same.
  • If you’re breathing too heavy, slow down.
  • If it feels painful, slow down.
  • If you start out too fast you’ll likely run out of steam before making it to the finish (or even halfway).
  • Find your pace and run it.  It’s dreadful trying to keep up with others who are faster.  It kills your confidence and in the end it keeps you from getting to your goal, or the finish line.
  • Running too fast in heat and humidity will make you feel like you’re suffocating or having a heart attack, or both.
  • Wearing a cotton t-shirt and shorts whilst running in the heat is a bad idea.  That is, unless you want to feel like you’re in a sauna with your clothes on, enjoy wearing sopping wet clothes or you plan on saving that sweat for later (I could have filled a bucket).
  • Chaffing. Sucks.

Laurie Villarreal

Laurie’s an accomplished endurance athlete and has been running since 1998. She’s the founder of House of Running and a professional Running Coach, a certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, and Health & Wellness Coach. Laurie’s trained and worked with nearly 1000 runners since 2010. She’s a master in her field with over 10,000 hours of run coaching experience. Laurie helps ambitious professionals make running part of their healthy lifestyle through on-on-one online coaching and fun group training programs. She has a unique holistic approach to running, helping her runners think beyond running to realize their running dreams. Read more about Laurie here.

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